Contributed by Emma Lavoie
After two years and three rescheduled trips (thanks Covid), I finally was able to travel to Kauai, Hawaii. Of all the activities and sites to see on the island, I couldn’t miss visiting some of Kauai’s historical and archaeological sites. The Hawaiian Islands are rich with history and it was wonderful to learn about Hawaii’s culture and traditions during my time on Kauai. Here are a few of my favorite sites and some history that I learned while visiting the island of Kauai.
The island of Kauai is one of many islands that make up Hawaii. There are eight major islands commonly seen on maps, but that does not account for all of them. For many people, only the four largest of the islands usually come to mind – Big Island, Maui, Oahu, and Kauai. These islands are the most well-known, but there are actually 137 islands and 5 counties that make up the state of Hawaii.
Map of the Eight Major Islands of Hawaii
Kauai is nicknamed “the Garden Isle” for its lush green mountains and valleys and rich biodiversity. At the heart of this fertile land is Mount Wai’ale’ale. With average annual rainfall of 400+ inches, this mountain is a sustainable source of water for the island’s agriculture, drinking water, hydroelectric power, recreation, and numerous other public uses. Mount Wai’ale’ale is part of an ancient volcano that formed Kauai in its last eruption over 5 million years ago. The explosion not only gave the island its unique shape, it created the entire east side of Kauai. Today the mountain is a half moon-shaped depression (also known as a caldera). This shape combined with island trade winds, creates a large amount of fog, mist, clouds, and rainfall making this location one of the wettest places on earth!
Inside the caldera of Mount Wai’ale’ale
In 1982, the caldera had a record-setting 683 inches of rain!
Kauai has a unique history being the oldest inhabited of the main Hawaiian Islands. It was the only Hawaiian island that was not conquered by King Kamehameha, entering a peaceful resolution with Kamehameha in 1810. Later in 1864, the Robinson Family purchased over 55,000 acres of Kauai and over 46,000 acres on the island of Niihau from King Kamehameha V for $10,000 in gold (about $170,000 today). In purchasing these lands, the family promised to protect the island and its residents from outside influences. Today, over five generations later, the descendants of the Robinson family have upheld their promise requesting that 76 percent of its non-conservation lands be designated as important agriculture lands, with protection from future development.
Sugarcane was Kauai’s primary economic resource, dominating the industry until the mid-20th century. Sugar was introduced to the island by the Polynesians and later the first sugar extracting operation and mill was established in the southern town of Koloa in 1835. Soon sugar plantations developed on the east side of the island – the Lihue Sugar Plantation expanding quickly due to its fertile land around the Wailua area fed by Mount Wai’ale’ale. By the 1960’s, the sugar industry began shutting down due to labor strikes, politics, and the statehood of Hawaii. The Lihue Sugar Plantation was one of the last operating plantations, shutting down in 2000.
Although the sugar industry has since ended, many sugar plantation sites are still present. I had quite the adventure exploring the Lihue Sugar Plantation, as the site is now accessible by mountain tube. Mountain tubing?! You may ask – why of course! Picture a lazy river-experience (although not so lazy at times) down some of the plantation’s old hand-dug canals and tunnel systems circa 1870. In many of these tunnels, you can still see the marks from workers’ pickaxes. Workers tried to save time and extend one of the tunnels with dynamite. This technique was discontinued after their first try, but a large chamber in the tunnel ceiling remains.
Lihue Sugar Plantation Canal, circa 1870
Mountain tubing the Lihue Sugar Plantation canal and tunnel system
My favorite location on the island was the Honopu Valley, located along the Napali Coast. The Honopu Valley is one of the most beautiful and mysterious sites with cathedral cliffs that reach up to 1,200 feet. Much of this side of the island is inaccessible by road and is best visited by helicopter or boat. The Honopu Valley, also known as the Valley of the Kings, is the source of many Hawaiian legends. For this reason the site is the most remote and secluded along the coast, being extremely difficult and dangerous to access due to the spiritual significance of this burial site.
The Napali Coast on the island of Kauai
Legends aside, the Honopu cliffs were used as burial sites for ancient Hawaiian Ali’i (royalty) that ruled along the Napali Coast. Hawaiians believed that their chiefs were direct descendants of gods and their remains contained powerful mana (life force). To avoid the mana falling into the wrong hands, a chief’s remains needed to be buried in a secret location.
Honopu Valley (Valley of the Kings)
Warriors, chosen from birth, were designated to bury the chief’s remains in the cliff walls. They would either climb hundreds of feet up the steep cliffs or lower themselves down the cliff walls by rope in search of a suitable location for the chief’s remains. Once carefully buried in the cliff walls, the warrior would jump or cut their rope, falling to their death – securing the location’s secrecy forever.
The Department of Land and Natural Resources limits visitors to this site out of respect for the sacred history of the Honopu Valley, although there have been several exceptions to these regulations for Hollywood, with movie scenes of Honopu filmed in King Kong (1976), Six Days Seven Nights, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Honeymoon in Vegas, and Jurassic Park 3.
It is quite remarkable to see these cliffs from air and water, knowing the honorable yet fatal task these warriors were selected for. It is said, to this day, the remains of these warriors can be seen in the sand dunes underneath the cliffs after being exposed to heavy rains or winds.
Coastal hiking trail view – Cliffs above Shipwreck Beach
After a two mile hike along the coastal trail from Shipwrecks Beach, you’ll come across a site frozen in time – the Makauwahi Cave Reserve. From above, the reserve looks like a tropical oasis amongst the rocky, volcanic cliffs and dune vegetation. If you’re lucky enough to find the cave’s entrance you can expect to be greeted by a small hole in the cave wall that visitors must crawl through as their rite of passage into the cave. Once through, you’ll emerge from the dark, cavern entrance and step back in time to Hawaii’s largest limestone cave and fossil site.
Entrance to the Makauwahi Cave
For over 100,000 years, water has seeped into the cave and eroded the limestone. As a result, 7,000 years ago a large section of the cave ceiling collapsed, leaving behind a vast oval opening to the sky. This formation created a unique time capsule of geological change and biological occupation.
The thick walls of the Makauwahi Cave preserves over 10,000 years of animal fossils (shells and bones) and plant fossils (seeds, leaves, and wood.) From a 352,000-year-old lava flow to a Styrofoam cup washed in by Hurricane Iniki in 1992, the prehistoric sinkhole preserved everything and anything that fell into it.
The Makauwahi Cave Reserve from above
Today, archaeologists and paleoecologists study the cave’s sediment layers and fossils to understand the prehistoric landscape and its change overtime. Using innovative restoration techniques, researchers and scientists are experimenting in native species conservation with abandoned farms and quarry lands surrounding the site. Through this initiative, acres of forest land, dune vegetation, and wetlands are being restored, featuring many species of native plants and endangered species such as waterbirds and blind cave invertebrates. There’s even a giant tortoise sanctuary in one of the wetland reserves near the cave! Learn more about the Makauwahi Cave Reserve and its current restoration project here!
Meet Maurice, a 20+ year old giant tortoise from the Makauwahi Cave Reserve Tortoise Sanctuary